John Bradburne - Saints need not be conventional

John Bradburne

John Bradburne

Sister Janet Fearns reflects on the life of John Bradburne.

"God's love within you is your native land.
So search none other, never more depart,
For you are homeless save God keeps your heart."

"When I set off on this pilgrimage, I believed firmly I'd find my vocation, but I thought it'd be something fantastic. The journey here was fantastic in its luck, but perhaps that isn't the mot juste."

The word 'fantastic' isn't a word normally associated with a saintly vocabulary. Neither does someone of undisputed holiness traditionally describe another person as having 'a wizard sense of humour'.

However, with John Bradburne, everything is unexpected. The man who described himself as 'God's vagabond' (and looked the part!) had an amazing simplicity and openness. Speaking of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he wrote to his great friend, Fr John Dove SJ, "In Nazareth I had been told that Olivet was… out of bounds to me, like Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre. So I spun a coin by the roadside - Galilee or Jerusalem? Jerusalem, said my oracle, and that was that."

Not everybody's vocation is decided by tossing a coin! Yet John had another unexpected 'saintly' escapade. "I was given a lift by a soldier in a military vehicle for a dozen miles or so as far as a place called Er Ramleh. There the soldier put me down at a sentry post on the road… I had not gone more than two or three hundred yards, thinking it a long way to Jerusalem… when I espied a whole line of military lorries… At the same time, it began to rain again… and so, like the unconsidering looney that I was, I approached the nearest vehicle and found the cab empty… the driver… was very charitable, telling me that I might sleep in the empty cab, and plying me, not only with a blanket, but with food also…"

I wonder how many saints describe themselves as a 'looney'? But then, how many saints are like John Bradburne, killed in Zimbabwe because he refused to abandon the leprosy patients amongst whom he had made his home?

For those unacquainted with Bradburne, his shoulder-length hair, untidy beard and the red sweatband across his forehead are reminiscent of the 60s, hippies and flower power. They are a stark contrast to his 1941 photograph when, as a Captain in the 9th Gurkha Rifles, the 20 year-old set sail from Southampton for military service in Malaya and Burma. Handsome, clean-cut and tidy, he gave no hint of his future as a nomadic pilgrim in search of solitude and prayer.

Even as a soldier, in spite of earning himself a Military Cross (which he never actually received), John still found time to be distracted by a roadside flower or a bird passing overhead. If nothing else, he was unconventional. Fr Dove, for instance, relates an occasion in India when Bradburne hired a type of sedan chair, normally carried by four poor 'coolies'. However, on this occasion, instead of riding in it himself, he helped three of the men to carry the fourth, as a passenger, up a steep hill, 'because the man looked tired'.

The first time I heard of John Bradburne was during my time in Zambia. His name regularly cropped up in conversation, but always with tremendous reverence. Priests, Religious, laypeople… it made no difference. Everybody took it for granted that John Bradburne is a saint and martyr. It is, then, not surprising that his Cause is in progress, but whether or not the Vatican eventually canonises him, he is one of those people whom popular opinion has already raised to the altars.

One of the beauties of John Bradburne is that he doesn't fit into a mould. He knew God was leading him somewhere, but where? He tried the Benedictines and the Carthusians, retained a lifelong friendship with the Jesuits but ended up as a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, convinced that he wanted "to serve Mass, not say Mass." He saw himself as thoroughly English, and yet his desire to go wherever he felt God was calling him led him throughout England, Europe and the Holy Land, until he finally ended up in Mutemwa, Zimbabwe, or Southern Rhodesia as it was then called during the days of the pre-Independence struggles. A poet who produced several thousand poems, who could make his travel diaries a 'must read', exquisitely conscious of Nature in all its colours, sounds and life forms, Bradburne at one time found his home in a shed under a water tank in Zimbabwe. Eventually he found a cave and spent his days caring for those whom society had rejected because of their leprosy. He made these people of Mutemwa his family.

When he was finally taken by guerrilla fighters, they offered him a way out. "Go to Mozambique", they said, "and look after our sick and wounded". He refused. John needed to be with his leprosy patients. Without his care, who would bandage their wounds and see to their basic needs? The guerrillas thought him crazy, but they could see that their captive was a good man. They relented. He could go back to Mutemwa. They would escort him to the road.

… except that they didn't. As he innocently headed back in the direction of the village, guerrillas shot John Bradburne in the back with an AK47 and killed him. Twenty-four spent cartridges were later found at the scene. It was 5th September 1979. Eyewitnesses record hearing singing as his killers tried to hide his body. A large white bird hovered over Bradburne, protecting him, preventing his removal and finally scaring off the gunmen.

Even in death he was unconventional. During his requiem in the Cathedral in Salisbury (Harare), on 10th September, to everybody's consternation, a pool of fresh blood appeared on the ground underneath his coffin. The Mass was stopped and the coffin opened. In spite of various investigations, nobody could explain why or how such an event could have happened. It was then that it was found John was not wearing the Franciscan habit in which he wanted to be buried. A habit was supplied and so the requiem could then proceed two days later.

John Bradburne was buried alongside the Dominican Sisters and the Jesuit priests and brothers who were also murdered during the War for Independence.

What does a saint look like? There is no prototype, no mould. God calls even a vagabond 'looney' to holiness. John Bradburne is proof of that. In our eyes, 'God's vagabond' might be a most unlikely saint, but in God's eyes, he's 'fantastic'!

Conscious that John Bradburne died, literally, because he laid down his life for others, steps are under way to promote his official recognition by the Church as a martyr.

The first step has been to formally appoint a Postulator in Rome to take it on. The enquiry is an expensive process and so The John Bradburne Memorial Society has set up a JustGiving campaign to support his Cause at:

Tags: John Bradburne, Sr Janet Fearns

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